10 March 2020

Rebecca Long-Bailey - sinking slowly in Stratford

There's a plaque by the chandelier in West Ham Town Hall, in Stratford, London, that marks the re-opening of this grand building by the Queen and Prince Philip after a refurbishment that followed a fire. There was never any possibility of the monarch being called upon to repeat this service because of any fire-raising, or even pulses being raised, at the event held there last night for Rebecca Long-Bailey (RLB).

Long-Bailey was there - and then she wasn't - with not that much difference being apparent between the two states. 

RLB underwhelmed in Newham, a place where everyone elected is Labour: MPs, councillors and more - as they usually have been since Kier Hardie was the local MP.  Given that, how would RLB fare in tougher Newark or Newquay?  

Is personality or passion a necessity to get votes or can being at Buggins-turn get you to power (John Major did lead the Conservatives to a general election victory)? The night provided some indicators of how matters might play-out with the want-to-be Leader.


Waiting for her to make her pitch to be Labour's next Leader was an audience of about two-hundred. That was a lot smaller than at similar events for Corbyn held locally just a couple of years ago, such as at the Royal Regency in Manor Park. 

Last night those attending were overwhelmingly young - perhaps four-fifths were under thirty. Many had the look of students. About a third of the audience was female and more than four-fifths of the audience was white in a borough, Newham, where that is true of about a quarter of its population.

Several MPs warmed-up the crowd. Sam Tarry, the new MP for Ilford South, was the sparkiest voice of the evening. His view was that Labour ''said too much” at the General Election and his party should be clearer about “what's the offer.” 

Tarry took an idiosyncratic view of where Britain might be heading and mused on the possibility of the far-right rising through what he was sure would be the general failure of the present government. This would make the country “more susceptible to the silent call of more dangerous and dark politics” he argued. He also thought the Conservatives will be taking an 'anti-democratic turn' and will further attack both the judiciary as well as the BBC - 'they want a Fox News, instead' - whilst thinking the latter was due criticism. 

Warmly received by the audience was Dianne Abbott MP, but maybe because of the foul abuse she receives rather than what she says or does. She was “101% for RLB” although I wondered if her identification of Hackney as part of the 'Labour heartlands that should not be forgotten' as well as Hartlepool, was either a plea for more thought or even an admonishment about this topic that is part of the platform of RLB.

Also speaking was the new Member of Parliament for Poplar and Limehouse, Apsana Begum, who has still some way to go to catch-up with the dullest MP. She might get there, especially if she usually does things like the rote recitation of various truisms as she did last night. Begum had that perception, common to many in Parliament, that audiences think them delivering a maiden-speech a worthy achievement and of interest to all.  

Passion in politics 

The event had started with the most left-wing speech of the night. The new MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, spoke about a party of capital versus a party of labour. She noted a wider preponderance now of food banks than McDonalds in the UK. If her prose was fiercer than other MPs, such could not be said about her pedestrian and passion-less approach; she could have been a Deputy Head reading out announcements at assembly.

Is there a need, or even a place, for passion in politics? I think few Prime Ministers (Margaret Thatcher was an exception), or party leaders (Neil Kinnock broke the rule here) have had this. But I don't know if an inability to stir up an audience - whether in an assembly hall or a living-room - makes a difference. 

It's a long-standing stream of thought that elections can be bought by emotional manipulation - from the admiration of rhetorical skills in ancient Greece to the themes of several Hollywood films in its Seventies politics phase being that 'they' were using sophisticated psychological techniques to deceive and get the vote.

If this is true, then the lackadaisical style of the current Premier, to the apparent (not just a media invention) robotic stance of Theresa May and to what struck me as the earnest, yet often insincere demeanour of Tony Blair, were not the optimum ways to present to the public. 

It is surely the case that random factors - such as the luck of selection processes, or those supporting a candidate just to stop an opponent - decide far more than a Leader who happens to have an excellent ability to communicate or even to tub-thump. 

The relative unimportance of not being able to attract a personal following means that RLB didn't fall long ago at the first jump but that's not to say she is also not handicapped by her inability to inspire.

The next Leader? 

RLB started with the apparently obligatory stuff about the relative poverty of her young life but it is true that such is very much in contrast with the Oxbridge background of most party leaders.

She told us that Labour's Brexit statements at the election were “a mistake” and that “the compromise position was a disaster and broke trust.” She identified a need to rebut more and, under her, the next leadership would set up a unit do such. The acknowledgement that such provision was there under Peter Mandelson was not made nor that, of course, such is what any party's communications team always delivers, as they have under Corbyn. 

The devolution of more powers to local authorities was supported by RLB as well as a written constitution - all part of a “democratic revolution”. An elected senate would replace the House of Lords but it would be assessed against how legislation from there meets various targets, such as green objectives - she committed to a Labour Britain being 'Net Zero by 2030' - in what sounded like a case of management consultancy meets law-makers. If the senate failed to meet its KPIs, what then?

RLB was very clear on support for Open Selection of its candidates by Labour. The only east London MPs to hear this there were Tarry, Begum and Abbott. Looking on the bright side, as RLB tends to do, she also said that process would benefit by taking away campaigning against sitting MPs as happens with trigger reselections.

Yet the obvious rejoinder to her promotion of Open Selection now is why, with the shortly to be renamed Corbyn-wing of Labour all finally agreeing to this policy, did they not introduce this when the departing Leader still had strong support? 

She majored on the Green Industrial Revolution. But what is it, exactly? Well, it would be the “biggest economic advance we have ever had in the UK” she said.

That's a bold vision for somewhere that was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution but she seemed to see this plan on that scale. I just wondered whether its projected industries - like those producing green energy - could ever be as large as the mass consumer-focused industries, such as cars or electronic device manufacture?

I also think that whatever unique advantages early C19 Britain enjoyed that enabled it to lead industrialisation are less likely to have present-day equivalents with the subsequent relative homogenisation of conditions in many states.

Compulsory education, democratic government, accessible (although still somewhat variable) power supply and transport, as well as interconnection (digital, more open borders, etc.) are now common to many potential competitors. There are also no natural resources, like coal, that are an obvious game-changer for this island. The waves are higher elsewhere.

And what boost did government give back then? It's not as though the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, had a plan to roll-out the mills; they came regardless of government (although certainly with its help). I would be surprised if today's even far more interventionist governments can have the magnitude of impact that she appears to seek through the Green Industrial Revolution.

One of the things RLB said that got audience support - as it would about any party, anywhere in the land - was her claim that Labour lost, in part, through not being unified.

I have always wondered about this common perception. Our bigger political parties are permanent coalitions themselves that, often successfully, represent opposing views. Support for the Conservatives includes most of the right-wing and some centre voters who both supported Brexit but also a significant minority of these who supported Remain. The latter voted for a party campaigning to 'Get Brexit Done' at the General Election.

I think this divergence of view below the surface might widen the basis of a party's support, not make its election prospects worse. Sure, if there was just one issue, choices would be clearer with an expectation of what a party in government would do, but the necessary pick'n'mix approach of a party to its wide platform ensured support for Labour from 32.2% of voters in December. Those supporters must have included those from the clear Left to many centrist voters.

After paying due heed with the compulsory "we are a broad church" comment about Labour, RLB then turned the thermostat up (or down?) by saying discussions will be ever-present but when Labour does disagree, 'we should "have these discussions behind closed doors." Yet the same media coverage would continue, just with more sources being anonymous. 


It's her generally 'looking on the best side' approach, with what appeared to be not much in the way of battle-hardness, that did make me think the recent comparison of her with Mrs Merton (but without the sauce) was not as unfair as was claimed. RLB did remind me of my relatives and my parents' friends from where I partly grew up (just a couple of miles away from Angela Rayner) in Mrs Merton territory - the south of Greater Manchester.

That was not just the surface recognition - the familiar phrases, such as “sitting on the top of our stairs” or her pronunciation of 'luck' and 'us', but the underwhelming, dare I say boring, presence that she has that reminded me of some from those times. A lack of memorable personality is not a problem when you are a shop-worker or a classroom assistant, like my relatives, but might be so for a potential Prime Minister. 

My memory of those aunts and the rest is them being well-meaning but also merging into their flock wallpaper. That lack of presence along with their playing of too many Fivepenny Piece albums and repeatedly offering unwanted Chorley Cakes prompted me and my siblings to get permission from our parents to slip away. Walking around the shut shops on a wet Sunday in Stockport was less dull. RLB had not long started speaking when I was already thinking about when I should leave to trudge through the rain to Lidl. 

Clive Power

All photos - Clive Power

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